Best portable MP3 players 2022: budget to hi-res music players

Best portable music and MP3 players Buying Guide: Welcome to What Hi-Fi?'s round-up of the best MP3 players you can buy in 2022.

Whether you want to save your phone's memory (and battery) or need your on-the-go sound to be as good as it can possibly be, look no further than our pick of the best MP3 players on the planet.

Despite the demise of the iPod (Apple waved goodbye to the last remaining model in May), the music player market still has some top brands in it. We have rounded up the best MP3 players across a range of prices, from budget Cowons right through to higher-end Astell & Kerns...

How to choose the best portable MP3 player for you

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Whatever your budget, you will be surprised at what you can get for your money these days. Every player here supports MP3 and AAC files of course, but we can all do better than that in 2022. All of the models below also support hi-res files (such as DSD, FLAC and PCM files), with some also adding native MQA playback to that compatibility list, so you can listen to hi-res Tidal Masters through compatible players and play back downloaded MQA music in the best sound quality possible.

Have an extensive digital music collection? Many of these MP3 players have microSD memory slots, so your assembled throng of tracks and artists need never stop growing. Expandable memory also means you can keep all of your music at the highest quality possible, without worrying about those large file sizes taking up all of your player's storage space. 

There are even MP3 players here that can double up as a DAC to enhance the sound between your smartphone/laptop and headphones/speakers. Some have built-in access to streaming services, too, while others have even more functionality that mirrors a phone's. 

But all of the products in this list share one thing: excellent sound quality. And if you're here, that is probably important to you. So, let's find you a player you will be happy with...

Portable music player: Astell & Kern A&norma SR25 MKII

The Astell & Kern A&norma SR25 MKII portable player is far more capable than any smartphone. (Image credit: Astell & Kern)
Astell & Kern has squeezed even more performance out of its award-winning entry-level player

Specifications

Storage: 64GB (expandable by 1TB via microSD)
Max file support: 32-bit/384kHz, DSD256, MQA
Headphone outputs: 3.5mm, balanced 2.5mm, Pentaconn 4.4mm
Battery life: 20hrs
Dimensions: 10.8 x 6.3 x 1.6cm
Weight: 178g

Reasons to buy

+
Entertaining and informative
+
Streaming service integration
+
Full MQA decoding

Reasons to avoid

-
64GB internal storage
-
Sharp corners

The Astell & Kern A&norma SR25 MKII is the latest in what has been a long line of excellent, What Hi-Fi? Award-winning, ‘entry-level’ portable music players. And each new generation invariably proves more talented than the last. 

The SR25 MKII doesn’t let us down, propelling its lineage forward from the 2018-introduced A&norma SR15 (also in this list) to set a new performance benchmark. Last year, it was a What Hi-Fi? 2021 Award-winner, and this year, it took the best portable music player over $1000 What Hi-Fi? 2022 Award.

Notably more expressive and eloquent than any other portable music player we have encountered at this price, and far beyond anything that smartphones are capable of, the SR25 MKII demonstrates just how good music on the move can sound, while also remaining reasonably affordable. And we stress the word 'reasonably': because while it pushes performance forward, it also pushes what is acceptable as an entry-level price.

Still, if your budget can stretch to it, this is a truly stunning player with superb build quality to match. 

Read the full review: Astell & Kern A&norma SR25 MKII

Best portable MP3 players 2022: Astell & Kern A&futura SE180

The Astell & Kern A&futura SE180 makes no compromises, offering up a customisable PMP with swappable DACs. (Image credit: Astell & Kern)
Astell & Kern’s quirkiest player yet is also one of its best value

Specifications

Storage: 256GB (expandable by 1TB via microSD)
Max file support: 32-bit/384kHz, DSD256, MQA
Headphone outputs: 3.5mm, balanced 2.5mm
Battery life : 10hrs (approx)
Dimensions: 13.7 x 7.7 x 2cm
Weight: 280g

Reasons to buy

+
Engrossing sound quality
+
Interchangeable modular DAC design
+
Strong features and user experience

Reasons to avoid

-
Extra DAC modules are relatively pricey

How about a customisable PMP with interchangeable DAC modules? That's the idea here – and we liked it so much, we gave it What Hi-Fi? 2021 and 2022 Awards. The new SE180 is the third model in Astell & Kern’s near-flagship A&futura range, following the inaugural SE100 and SE200, both of which gained Awards from this very publication in 2019 and 2020 respectively (and are listed below).

To personally tailor your sound, the SE180 goes one step further than the slightly older SE200 (which has two user-selectable DAC configurations built into the player) in that it features an interchangeable DAC module design. The concept: Astell & Kern releases a series of DAC modules, all with different sonic characters, so that owners can purchase them and swap them in over the standard supplied module, if they so wish.

Of course, these can be considered optional extras; experimental paths that can be taken or completely ignored. After all, the SE180 is an all-in-one player in itself, with the default module containing the ESS ES9038PRO DAC. It supports 32-bit/384kHz PCM, native DSD256 and MQA audio and has 2.5mm, 3.5mm and 4.4mm outputs to cater for a wide range of headphones.

With built-in wi-fi as well as direct access to streaming service apps in its menu, the SE180 doesn’t make hard work of your music however you would like to play it. Whether you consider the modular design valuable or not, even straight from the box, the SE180 is one of the best performance-per-pound offerings in the company’s line-up.

Read the full review: Astell & Kern A&futura SE180 

Best portable MP3 players 2022: Astell & Kern Kann Alpha

With Bluetooth 5.0 and hi-res audio support, the Astell & Kern Kann Alpha does it all. (Image credit: Astell & Kern)
Listening to hi-res music on the Kann Alpha is a pure joy

Specifications

Storage: 64GB (expandable by 1TB via microSD)
Max file support: 32-bit/384kHz, DSD256, MQA
Headphone outputs: Balanced 2.5mm, balanced 4.4mm, 3.5mm/optical
Battery life: 14.5hrs
Dimensions: 11.7 x 6.8 x 2.5cm
Weight: 316g

Reasons to buy

+
Expansive presentation
+
Punchy bass
+
Good levels of detail

Reasons to avoid

-
Clunky streaming service integration

The Kann Alpha is the third player in the Kann series, yet the first Astell & Kern player to implement Bluetooth 5.0 (complete with aptX HD). It boasts a more powerful built-in headphone amplifier than the previous Kann series players it succeeds, too. And thanks to the rearrangement of various components and the use of smaller resistors and capacitors, it promises added power in a smaller and more portable chassis.

It's still slightly bulky but will fit in a coat pocket and supports most music file formats, including  MQA, FLAC, ALAC, AIFF, WAV and native DSD256. It's similarly wide-ranging when it comes to wireless codec support (LDAC, aptX HD, aptX, AAC and, naturally, SBC Bluetooth). The Alpha also supports MQA-CD playback, by way of Astell & Kern’s CD-Ripper. There's 24-bit and DSD file compatibility; three headphone outputs (2.5mm and a new balanced 4.4mm, plus a 3.5mm unbalanced headphone jack/optical); a microSD card slot to expand the 64GB of onboard storage; and support for 33 music streaming services over wi-fi (although these are a little hit and miss to implement). 

The biggest selling point? Sound quality. We cannot fault its sonic chops. The Alpha is as meticulous and honest as it is zealous, with an expansive presentation, punchy bass and good levels of detail. Fundamentally, players such as this must deliver hi-res music in a portable design – and it delivers this in spades. Live recordings are leant a degree of spaciousness and realism rarely heard.

Read the full Astell & Kern Kann Alpha review

Best portable MP3 players 2022: Astell & Kern A&norma SR15

The Astell & Kern A&norma SR15 is an excellent portable player in terms of DAC, pre-amp, and overall sound quality. (Image credit: Astell & Kern)
An all-rounder for DAC, pre-amp and quality sound

Specifications

Storage: 64GB + mircoSD expandable
Max file support: 32-bit/384kHz, DSD128, MQA
Headphone outputs: 3.5mm, balanced 2.5mm
Battery life: 9hrs
Dimensions: 9.9 × 5.7 x 1.6 cm
Weight: 154g

Reasons to buy

+
Subtle and clear sound
+
Intuitive interface
+
DAC and preamp

Reasons to avoid

-
Design may not appeal to all

Our 2019 Product of the Year Award winner is still one of the best portable music players at around this price bracket a few years on. The Astell & Kern A&norma SR15 is the predecessor to the A&norma SR25 MKII that sits at the top of this list (which means it can currently be picked up at a tasty discount.)

Boasting an easy-to-use interface, stacks of storage and plenty of hi-res file support – not to mention serious levels of detail and a dynamic sound that's synonymous with the brand – it promises a severe step up from your smartphone sound.

The device can also be used as a DAC/preamp, allowing you to use it to enhance the performance of your smartphone and/or laptop.

Hurry while end of stocks last!

Read the full review: Astell & Kern A&norma SR15

Best portable MP3 players 2022: Astell & Kern Kann

The Astell & Kern Kann is arguably the very best portable music player in its price bracket.
For those who don't mind spending a little more for the ultimate in hi-res sound quality

Specifications

Storage: 64GB (expandable by 256GB microSD + 256GB SD)
Max file support: 32-bit/384kHz, DSD256
Headphone outputs: 3.5mm, balanced 2.5mm, balanced 4.4mm
Battery life: 14hrs
Dimensions: 11.5 × 7.1 x 2.5 cm
Weight: 278g

Reasons to buy

+
Good array of features
+
Superb detail
+
Strong, dynamic presentation

Reasons to avoid

-
Design might not appeal to everyone

Arguably the ultimate high-resolution portable music player in this price bracket, the Kann's solid build combines with impressive battery life and a long list of features.

There are both unbalanced (3.5mm) and balanced (2.5mm) outputs, aptX Bluetooth for wireless streaming at better-than-CD quality, and native support for 32bit/384kHz and DSD256 files. 

As for the performance, there’s lashings of depth, detail, and dynamism that will make you reluctant to take off your headphones. It keep instruments precisely organised in a spacious presentation, while bass drums are conveyed with tenacity and force – the Kann digs down into the lower frequencies and presents them with a good deal of thump so you get a clear indication of the drummer’s force.

Even when fed lower-resolution tracks via streaming services, the Kann maintains its character. While there is an expected drop in detail, it’s still punchy and fun. If you want to show off how impressive good hi-fi can be, it’s not compulsory to buy more hi-res files.

Admittedly the aesthetics might raise a few eyebrows – and the newer Kann Alpha is a slightly more svelte model. But make no mistake, this is a talented machine you will struggle to put down.

Read the full review: Astell & Kern Kann

Best portable MP3 players 2022: Astell & Kern A&ultima SP2000

The Astell & Kern A&ultima SP2000 isn't very portable but it's a one-of-a-kind PMP. (Image credit: Astell & Kern)
Not very portable or accessibly priced, but it sounds like no other PMP we have heard

Specifications

Storage: 512GB (expandable by 1TB via microSD)
Max file support: 32-bit/768kHz, DSD512, MQA
Headphone outputs: 3.5mm, 2.5mm balanced
Battery life: 8hrs
Dimensions: 13 x 8 x 1.6 cm
Weight: 430g

Reasons to buy

+
Best music player we've heard
+
Streaming features
+
Gorgeous and intuitive

Reasons to avoid

-
Average battery life
-
Chunky build

Not many portable music players will find common ground with the SP2000 – and that goes for price, build and performance. This is a one-of-a-kind player, which is as impractically portable as it is inaccessibly priced.

If it were a car, it would be a Bentley Arnage – a luxurious ride for special occasions, rather than something to use for the weekly shop.

As a high-end music player – both as a straight-up PMP in a desirable headphones set-up and as a streaming-capable source for your speaker-led hi-fi – the A&ultima SP2000 is the sort of musical and multi-talented device that is otherwise hard to come by. 

Its neutral balance opts for refinement and sophistication over outright liveliness, but that’s no criticism. This is a subtle presentation, rather than a barnstormer, which befits its high-end price tag. Forgive its weight and average battery life, and you won’t be sorry you chose this fantastic-sounding device.

Read the full review: Astell & Kern A&ultima SP2000

How we test portable music players 

We have state-of-the-art testing facilities in London, Reading and Bath, where our team of experienced, in-house reviewers tests the majority of hi-fi and AV kit that passes through our door, including the higher-end portable music players that might well be used in a portable hi-fi or desktop scenario.

These music players are placed in our pockets during the review period too, of course, so we can gauge how portable and easy to use on the fly they really are.

Most important in our reviewing process is that each product is compared with the best in its price and class. What Hi-Fi? is all about comparative testing, so we keep our Award winners nearby to enable comparisons between new products and ones we know perform highly in the category.

We are always impartial and do our utmost to make sure we are hearing every product at its very best, so we try plenty of different types of music and give each plenty of listening time (and time to run in). We use a range of headphones at levels likely to suit a certain player, too.

It's not just about sound quality, of course. If a product has noteworthy features – such as a battery life, built-in streaming services and DAC-performing abilities, in the case of portable music players – we always ensure part of our testing involves testing the claims made by its makers. 

All review verdicts are agreed upon by the entire team, rather than an individual reviewer, to eliminate any personal preference and to make sure we are being as thorough as possible. There is no input from PR companies or our sales team when it comes to the verdict. At What Hi-Fi?, we are proud to deliver honest, unbiased reviews – something we have been doing consistently for more than 45 years. 

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Ruben Circelli
Staff Writer

Ruben is a Staff Writer at What Hi-Fi? and longtime consumer technology and gaming journalist. Since 2014, Ruben has written news, reviews, features, guides, and everything in-between at a huge variety of outlets that include Lifewire, PCGamesN, GamesRadar+, TheGamer, Twinfinite, and many more. Ruben's a dedicated gamer, tech nerd, and the kind of person who misses physical media. In his spare time, you can find Ruben cooking something delicious or, more likely, lying in bed consuming content.

With contributions from
  • Escudos999
    I definitely think either, or both, the Shanling M0 or new Q1 DAP/DACs should be on this list, great UI, flexibility, sound and prices £80 for M0 and around £110 for Q1. I love the 1950s retro style of the Q1.
    Reply
  • Blasterinn
    Where is the Fiio M15? The Ibasso players and Hiby too?
    And this astell & kern adoration is getting a bit tired, they are quality players but do not deserve all this adoration.
    How about Luxury Precision P6 R2R DAP?
    I just think this list is in desperate need of a rethink/refresh.
    Reply
  • Navanski
    I own an LG V30 smartphone. It cost me €150 new, open box. It has a quad DAC and can drive my 300ohm HD580s.
    Previous to getting this phone I bought a Fiio X3 mk II and a Fiio M6. The UI on the phone is many times better than either of the DAPs. In a blind test I doubt very much whether I would be able to distinguish the audio output of the phone against either DAP.
    Not only that but the V30 is really good phone despite it's age.
    I am selling both the DAPs if I can find some one who is willing to buy them, given the above. LG phones are just killing the DAP.
    Reply
  • crunchbangyou
    This is a freaking Astell & Kern list, needs a serious rethinking.

    @Navanski - Completely agree with you. LG phones with dacs are so much better for a great price. Apart from owning two FiiO players and a FiiO amp, I have a LG G7 which I use only for music. Also picked a brand new LG G7 One to stock till LG G7 gives away. The user experience is so much better and no compromise on SQ too.
    Reply
  • Navanski
    What Hi-Fi? said:
    You can listen to music on your phone of course, but if you want optimum sound quality, only a dedicated player will do.

    Best portable music players 2019: from budget to hi-res music : Read more
    I own an LG V30 smartphone. It cost me €150 new, open box. It has a quad DAC and can drive my 300ohm HD580s.
    Previous to getting this phone I bought a Fiio X3 mk II and a Fiio M6. The UI on the phone is many times better than either of the DAPs. In a blind test I doubt very much whether I would be able to distinguish the audio output of the phone against either DAP.
    Not only that but the V30 is really good phone despite it's age. This was a top spec flagship phone less than 4 years ago
    I am selling both the DAPs if I can find some one who is willing to buy them, given the above. LG phones are just killing the DAP.

    Disagree with this and John Darko's similar experience if you think you can.
    Reply
  • Navanski
    What Hi-Fi? said:
    You can listen to music on your phone of course, but if you want optimum sound quality, only a dedicated player will do.

    Best portable music players 2019: from budget to hi-res music : Read more
    You back that up with any evidence and I will gladly prove you wrong.
    Reply
  • Tanihifi1
    Gentlemen, I wonder why Fiio M17 is not on your list. As nmore people said above, you are A&K addicted, and that's not fair.
    There is not even a review of Fiio M17 on What Hi-Fi site. Is there any reason you didn't consider this? Thanks for a reply...if you read this comment.
    Reply
  • Navanski
    Tanihifi1 said:
    Gentlemen, I wonder why Fiio M17 is not on your list. As nmore people said above, you are A&K addicted, and that's not fair.
    There is not even a review of Fiio M17 on What Hi-Fi site. Is there any reason you didn't consider this? Thanks for a reply...if you read this comment.
    You are so right. I think there is a tendency to ignore Chi-fi together with a distinct bias towards certain brands. Someone with a less open mind might suggest brown envelopes were involved.
    Reply
  • davidnewbie
    Plenue D is worth a listen
    Reply